Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
In 2019, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden clearly had it with Saudi Arabia. Angered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) stonewalling of his reported role in the murder and dismembering of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and promised a recalibration of US-Saudi relations.
Now President Biden isn’t so sure. The Wall Street Journal recently reported Biden had dispatched CIA Director William Burns to meet and explore fence-mending with the reckless and ruthless Crown Prince. And there have been reports in recent months that Biden’s advisers had been considering a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia this spring. In view of reports that Biden is considering a trip to Israel and perhaps the region, the President should resist the temptation and slow walk any reconciliation. If there are any apologies to be made, let the Saudis take the first step and ensure their deliverables are sufficient to warrant a reconciliation.
It’s easy to see how an argument can be made that it’s time to move beyond the Khashoggi murder and kiss and make up. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted the oil market and created serious supply shortages. And the only large available spare production capacity is in the Gulf.
Moreover, the Saudis are looking for a way out of the disastrous war in Yemen and last month removed one of the major obstacles to progress toward a settlement by forcing the putative Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign in favor of a presidential council. And what better way to strengthen and expand the Abraham Accords than by cozying up to the Saudis in an effort to get them to take another step toward reaching out to Israel.
Finally, at a time when the Iranian nuclear negotiations are stalled, what better way to increase pressure on Tehran than to welcome Saudi (and MBS) back into the fold. Indeed, throw in a few security guarantees that would assuage both Saudi and Emirati worries about US complacency in the wake of attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthis, and a dream reconciliation would be complete.
Not so fast. The severe tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia didn’t happen overnight; nor will they be somehow magically addressed by the sugar high the Donald Trump administration created by coddling MBS and running interference for him on human rights violations, the Yemen war and the Khashoggi murder. If the Saudis are serious about reconciliation, they should be willing to accommodate US concerns, and it’s by no means certain that they are.
On increasing oil production, which the US has pressed them to do, the answer so far appears to be no. The Saudis could ramp up production, but they appear unwilling to break the accord from the 13-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting countries and nine other non-OPEC members to ramp up production only by 400,000 barrels a day each month. The Saudis are hedging; they do not want to rupture ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin and over the long term see the US as an oil producer competitor.
On the murder of Khashoggi, Biden confronts a serious issue of personal credibility. In February, when asked whether Biden stood by his comments about Saudi Arabia as a pariah state whose leadership has little redeeming social value, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said he did.
Were Biden to agree to end his de facto boycott of MBS without the Crown Prince assuming responsibility for the gruesome murder, the President’s whole commitment to reinjecting values and human rights into US foreign policy would be undermined.
At a time when the Biden administration is fighting to defend democracy in Ukraine, it’s an embarrassment to be reconciling with the leader of a country who represses his own citizens. As the Department of State’s Human Rights report for Saudi Arabia noted: “significant human rights issues included credible reports of: executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad.”
There’s no doubt that Saudi Arabia is moving closer to Israel; and it’s likely that if MBS were now king he’d be willing to take bolder steps than his father, the current king who’s much more a traditionalist committed to the Palestinian issue.
MBS has said remarkably that he regards Israel as a “potential ally.” And yet even with all the benefits and attention the Trump administration showered on Saudi Arabia, caution on recognition of Israel and joining the Abraham Accords prevailed. And clearly given MBS’s mood (he told the Atlantic he didn’t care what Biden thought of him), it’s doubtful that anything the Biden administration might do would compel the Saudis now to fully recognize Israel.
The US-Saudi relationship has always been transactional. And that’s the way Biden should approach any reconciliation – careful to ensure that not only America’s interests and credibility are protected but his own as well. If the Saudis want to come in from the cold, let them identify key deliverables on oil, Khashoggi and Yemen. And whatever security guarantees they may want in return should be reasonable and not tether the US to the policies of a ruthless and reckless authoritarian who may well want to embroil the US in a war with his Iranian arch enemy.
Biden probably already knows that under MBS, at best, Saudi Arabia is likely to remain an unpredictable partner whose interests episodically align with America’s but whose values never do.